The Best Monastic Documentaries

The monastic life is about as far as one can get from the flashy world of the entertainment industry. And yet, it has been the subject of some very good documentaries over the last fifteen years or so. For those curious about the various monks (and nuns) of the world, I thought I would provide a list of a few films with which to start.

Into Great Silence (2006)

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 10.05.16 PM.png

A Carthusian prays in his cell, from Into Great Silence (Source)

This stirring art film by Philip Gröning was produced over several years. Every shot is deeply meditative. We, the viewers, are drawn into a contemplative pose along with the monks themselves. As might be expected, there is very little dialogue – indeed, very little sound at all. We get a powerful sense of the holy silence that envelops the Carthusians of La Grande Chartreuse. Yet when the monks do speak, such as in an interview with an ancient, blind monk that comes towards the end of the film, the words mean something. The chant of the night office given prominent place in the film evokes all the centuries of virtually unchanged monastic life that have come down to us from St. Bruno. This film is hands down the most important and most spiritually insightful documentary about monasticism, and it has continued to exert a powerful influence on most such documentaries since.

Veilleurs dans la nuit (2011)

LeBarrouxMass

A liturgy at Le Barroux (Source)

The monastery of Sainte Marie-Madeleine du Barroux, founded in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, preserves much of the great tradition of French Benedictine life. It is one of the very few monasteries on earth which has preserved the form of tonsure once known as “the monastic crown.” It is also famous for its grand and elegant celebration of the liturgy, as well as the great holiness of its founder, Dom Gérard Calvet. This French documentary does a good job depicting their life through a mix of commentary and interviews. It is of an entirely different style than Into Great Silence, but it relates more actual information about the monks themselves.

Quaerere Deum (2011)

NorciaBeer

Some of the monks of Norcia with their famous beer (Source)

Filmmaker Peter Hayden of Wilderland Media has done some great and poetic work publicizing the various new monasteries founded in the old world by Americans. The first of these was the Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia, established in 2000. It is only appropriate then that Hayden should have looked at them first. He produced a “day in the life” style documentary bearing clear influences from Into Great Silence. The slow pace, lack of commentary, and meditative minimalism all recall the best parts of that earlier work. Norcia itself – or what it was before the terrible earthquake of 2016 destroyed much of the town – emerges as a living community “seeking God.” A subdued sense of joy shines throughout.

Benedictine Monks, Ireland (2017)

 

BrJBAdoration

Br. John Baptist in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, Silverstream. Photo taken by the author.

Peter Hayden’s second work on the monastic renewal is a more obviously promotional piece of filmmaking than Quaerere Deum. A profile of Silverstream Priory, Benedictine Monks, Ireland depicts the community life of adoration and reparation led by the monks there. Scenes from Mass, chapter, and refectory alternate with candid shots of the monks at work and leisure. Interviews with the Prior and Subprior provide spiritual as well as historical context. As someone who knows the monks personally, I found it a pretty good exposition of their spirit. That peculiarly Benedictine sense of place is evoked through gentle Irish music at various points. And the combined wisdom of Dom Mark and Dom Benedict is a great grounding to the beautiful visuals. I was very taken with the image of Dom Cassian, then only a postulant, in prayer at the pillar and candle.

My only criticism is that, in spite of all these good features, the film fails to capture the overwhelming sense of the supernatural that hangs about Silverstream. I’m not sure if it was the darkness of the year during filming, or the slightly uneven cinematography, or the lack of scenic order that scuttled it for me.  Benedictine Monks, Ireland needs a heavier dose of the contemplative stillness that so strongly marks both Into Great Silence and Quaerere Deum. Still, it’s a nice introduction to the place for those curious about the Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration.

Présence à Dieu (2015)

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 10.39.43 PM.png

Matins at Sept-Fons, from Présence à Dieu (Source)

This short film, first brought to my attention by Fr. Joseph Koczera SJ, does a good job showing what a traditional monastery can look like, even if it embraces the new Mass and the vernacular office. Notre Dame de Sept-Fons is currently the largest Trappist monastery in the world, at least in terms of membership – it is also manifestly young and diverse. The film shows why the Abbey keeps getting vocations. A near constant soundtrack of chant carries the viewer along. Présence à Dieu is also full of the Abbot’s exposition of the Rule, which is a nice plus.

God is the Bigger Elvis (2011)

GodistheBiggerElvis

Mother Dolores Hart, wearing her trademark beret, from God is the Bigger Elvis (Source)

This one differs from the others in a few key respects. First, it’s an HBO production, rather than an Indie film. Secondly, it’s about nuns rather than monks. And third, there is a delicate sense of humor throughout that is a refreshing change from the other movies. It tells the story of Mother Dolores Hart, a starlet of the 1950’s who appeared in several features alongside Elvis before becoming a nun at the Benedictine monastery of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. She is now the prioress of the community. The documentary looks at her life and vocation as well as the daily ins and outs of the monastery. Not to be missed!

Life in Hidden Light (2016)

LifeinHIddenLight

A scene in the refectory from Life in Hidden Light (Source)

Monasticism is not confined to the Benedictine family. As Life in Hidden Light reminds us, the Carmelites also have a great tradition of contemplative monasticism. Clearly influenced by Into Great Silence, this film does a great job balancing meditative cinematography and interviews with the Discalced Carmelite sisters of Wolverhampton. One in particular that stands out is the old, mostly deaf nun who speaks about the “mess” of the world and the love of God. I was reminded of Into Great Silence‘s blind Carthusian (not to mention the slightly grotesque Jesuit in “The Enduring Chill,” by Flannery O’Connor). The old nun’s message is a sound, salutary one that we should all hearken to in this day and age.

There are probably other such films out there, but these are a few that might be a good starting place for those interested in the monastic life.

Monsieur Olier on the Ascension

QueensCollegeAscension.jpg

The Ascension fresco at Queen’s College Chapel, Oxford – perhaps my favorite chapel in the entire University. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

One of the greatest luminaries of the French Church in the 17th century, that period known as the Grand Siècle, was Jean-Jacques Olier. Though barely read today, he exerted a profound influence upon the formation of the French School of Spirituality through his work in founding the Sulpician Order. He was a close associate of St. Vincent de Paul, who always regarded him as a saint.

M.Olier.jpg

M. Olier, priez pour nous! (Source)

I have excerpted here his short chapter on the Ascension from his book, The Interior Life of the Most Holy Virgin. I must ask my readers to forgive me for not translating this edifying work, as I did not have the time. Those with French, however, will appreciate the depth of M. Olier’s insight.

***

Le sacrifice de Jésus-Christ étant offert pour l’Église, qui est visible, devait être visible lui-même dans toutes ses parties, afin de nous donner une certitude parfaite de notre réconciliation avec Dieu. Marie, dans le jour de la Purification, avait paru à l’offrande de la victime, en présentant elle-même, au nom de l’Église, Jésus-Christ notre hostie, et en le dévouant à l’immolation. Elle avait aussi été présente à la deuxième partie du sacrifice, à l’immolation réelle de Jésus-Christ sur la croix. La troisième, qui était la consommation ou le transport de la victime en Dieu, avait eu lieu dans le mystère de la Résurrection. Mais cette consommation s’était opérée d’une manière invisible; et la bonté de Dieu voulait que, pour notre consolation, cette partie du sacrifice devînt visible aussi bien que les deux autres, ou plutôt que Notre-Seigneur montât au ciel pour aller se perdre dans le sein de Dieu non-seulement à la vue de la très-sainte Vierge sa mère, mais encore sous les yeux de tous les apôtres par qui l’Église était représentée. C’est ce qu’avait figuré autrefois Élie montant au ciel dans un char de feu à la vue d’Élisée ; et ce prophète avait déclaré expressément à son disciple que, s’il le voyait monter, il aurait son double esprit. Don mystérieux, qui exprimait le fruit du sacrifice, c’est-à-dire l’esprit de mort et de résurrection ou de vie divine, que Jésus-Christ devait laisser à l’Église figurée par Élisée.

Après sa résurrection, il communiquait toutes les dispositions et tous les sentiments de son âme à sa bénite Mère. Il lui exprimait spécialement les désirs ardents qui le pressaient d’aller enfin se réunir à Dieu son Père, pour le louer et le glorifier dans le ciel. Marie, de son côté, éprouvait un véhément désir d’y accompagner son Fils, pour s’unir à ses louanges; et sans doute qu’elle eût terminé alors sa vie et l’eût suivi dans les cieux, s’il n’eût voulu se servir d’elle pour aider l’Église dans ses commencements.

L’oeuvre de cette divine Mère était encore incomplète. Après avoir donné, par Marie, naissance au chef, Dieu voulait procurer aussi, par elle, la formation de tout le corps. Il voulait la rendre mère de sa famille entière, de Jésus-Christ et de tous ses enfants d’adoption. Par zèle pour la gloire de Dieu et par charité pour nous, elle accepte avec joie la commission que Notre-Seigneur lui laisse de travailler à faire honorer son Père par les hommes, et de demeurer sur la terre jusqu’à ce que l’Église ait été bien affermie.

Le quarantième jour après la Résurrection étant donc venu, Jésus-Christ- se rend à Béthanie avec sa sainte Mère et ses apôtres; là élevant les mains et les bénissant, il se sépare d’eux, et en leur présence s’élève vers le ciel. Ils l’y suivirent des yeux, jusqu’à ce qu’enfin une nuée le dérobe à leur vue; et comme néanmoins ils tenaient toujours leurs regards fixés au ciel, deux anges vêtus de blanc leur apparurent et leur dirent : Pourquoi vous arrêtez-vous à regarder le ciel? Ce Jésus, qui a été attiré du milieu de vous dans le ciel, viendra de la même manière que vous l’avez vu monter au ciel. Ainsi Dieu voulut-il que l’acceptation solennelle qu’il faisait de notre hostie, eût pour témoins non-seulement tous les apôtres et la très-sainte Vierge, qui l’avait produite de sa propre substance, mais les anges eux-mêmes.

En montant dans les cieux, Jésus-Christ élève avec lui tous les saints patriarches et les autres justes qu’il avait retirés des limbes, et va les offrir à son Père, comme les premières dépouilles qu’il a ravies au démon par sa mort. Enfin, dérobé par la nuée à la vue de ses disciples, il laisse rejaillir la splendeur de sa gloire, qu’ils n’auraient pu soutenir et dont il avait retenu l’éclat dans ses diverses apparitions.

Comme les enfants des rois donnent des présents à leurs sujets, en faisant leur entrée dans leur royaume, Jésus-Christ, montant à la droite de son Père pour prendre possession de son trône, voulait envoyer à ses apôtres son esprit et ses dons, c’est-à-dire dilater son coeur en faisant entrer les hommes dans ses sentiments de religion envers Dieu son Père, et achever ainsi son ouvrage. Dans ce dessein et par son commandement, les disciples s’assemblèrent à Jérusalem avec la très-sainte Vierge et plusieurs saintes femmes; et là ils étaient en prière, louant, bénissant le nom de Dieu, et attendant la venue de l’Esprit-Saint. Marie était au milieu d’eux et présidait ce sacré concile, comme ayant, pour aviser à établir la gloire de Dieu dans le monde, une grâce qui excellait par-dessus celle de tous les apôtres. Quoique Jésus-Christ n’eût pas voulu qu’elle fût présente à la Cène, ni qu’elle offrît extérieurement le saint sacrifice, ni qu’elle fût prêtre selon l’ordre de Melchisédech, il voulait néanmoins que Marie, destinée à être la mère des vivants, se trouvât dans le Cénacle avec les apôtres, afin de verser la plénitude de son esprit en elle, comme dans le réservoir de la vie divine, et de la distribuer par elle à tous ses enfants, et aussi pour apprendre à l’Église que jamais elle ne serait renouvelée qu’en la société de sa divine Mère et en participant à son esprit.

rococoascensionaltar

A rococo altar depicting the Ascension, Ottobeuren, Germany. (Source)

Maurice Zundel on Prayer

zundel-800x450

Maurice Zundel in old age. (Source)

Fr. Maurice Zundel was one of the great, if often-forgotten, theologians of the last century. Sometime student of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, he wrote various works of Catholic philosophy in conversation with existentialism, Protestantism, and personalism. This wide-ranging and erudite scholarship led soon-to-be-Saint Paul VI to call him “a mystical genius.” However, he is best known in the Anglophone world for his writing on the liturgy. This extract is taken from his great work, The Splendour of the Liturgy (1943), translated by Edward Watkin for Sheed & Ward. It comes from his chapter on “The Collect” (pg. 61-67). I was struck by this passage’s profound depths of wisdom as well as its light,  imaginative style.

Prayer is the soul’s breath, the creature’s fiat in response to the Creator’s in that mysterious exchange which makes us God’s fellow-workers. Its purpose is not to inform God of needs which He knows infinitely better than we do ourselves, nor to move His will to satisfy them, for His will is the eternal gift of infinite Love. Its sole object is to make us more capable of receiving such a gift, to open our eyes to the light, to throw open the portals of our heart too narrow to give access to the King of glory. There is no need to importune God for our happiness, for He never ceases to will it. It is we who place the obstacle in its way and keep his love at arm’s length.

Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children, as a hen gathers her chickens beneath her wings, and thou wouldst not.

This surely is the most poignant expression of the Divine Tragedy: ‘I would, I, thy Lord and thy Godbut thou, thou wouldst not.’ If we place this complaint side by side with the text already quoted from the Apocalypse, ‘I stand at the door and knock,’ we must conclude that God always hears man’s prayer, that He is the eternal answer to prayer, and that it is man who too often refuses to hear God’s prayer.

And prayer is precisely the response to Love’s eternal invitation, which is made with an infinite regard for our freedom. It is, therefore, superfluous to ask whether every prayer is heard. It is heard if and in so far as it is a genuine prayer. For genuine prayer is the opening of the soul to the mysterious invasion of the Divine Presence, and it is completely summed up in the final appeal of the Apocalypse: ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’ (61-62)

Throughout the chapter, Zundel strikes what we might call a sophiological note. He approaches the most basic substance of the Christian lifeprayerand carries on to the Eschaton, to spiritual nuptials, and to illumination from on high.

It remains true that there is no conversation without answers, no marriage of love without mutual consent. And it is a marriage of love that is to be concluded between God and ourselves. In this marriage whose intimate union must continually grow until its flower unfolds in eternity, prayer is our assent. There is no need to put it into words. It may be confined to a silent adherence, a simple look in which we give our entire being a calm silence in which, without adding anything of her own, the soul listens to Him who utters Himself within her by His single Word. And all prayer tends towards this transparent passivity which exposes the diamond of our free will to the rays of the eternal light. We can pray without asking for anything and without saying anything, that God may express Himself the more freely…

It is ultimately for the sake of God that the soul desires her own Beatitude, that no obstacle may thwart His love, that the world may realise its spiritual vocation, and that throughout creation all may be yea, as all is yea in God. (62-64)

Zundel notes that the peculiar genius of the Liturgy is the way it uses human spiritual needs as launchpads for a “flight” into the eternal. The Collects crystallize this function in that they often speak of our human wants. Zundel writes:

But their very sobriety forbids us to stop at their verbal surface. The soul has but to let herself go and she is launched on the open sea voyaging over abysses of light and darkness, of sorrow and peace. They are more than prayers, they are sacraments of prayer, formulas that induce the essential prayer which we have attempted to describe. (64-65)

MassMeaning

Would that we might be ever mindful of what is really taking place at every Mass! (Source)

Among Prayer-Book Anglicans, there used to be a very old custom of memorizing collects. I do wonder how many still keep it upcertainly, I don’t know of any Catholics who memorize collects. Imagine what would happen to our own spiritual lives, to say nothing of the Church militant, if we committed to learning a few by heart. If you’re looking for a beautiful English translation of the traditional collects, might I recommend a little volume published by W. Knott & Son. Otherwise, there’s another good alternative that came out around the same time. 

Elsewhere: A Brief Note on the Napoleonic Church

1200px-Allégorie_du_Concordat_de_1801

Allegory of the Concordat of 1801, Pierre Joseph Célestin François. Here’s some heavy-handed metanarrative for you. (Source)

Or, rather, the post-Napoleonic Church. Fascinating stuff about canonical life after Napoleon over at Canticum Salomonis. Some of my own research covers precisely this period, so I appreciate finding a contemporary Catholic blogger willing to post excerpted material of this nature. One does rather wish that he (I’m assuming it’s a he) had also provided the name of the original author, or at least the date of publication. Alas. The content is still very interesting.

A Startling Passage out of Peter Anson

GnosticVestments

“Gnostic Catholic” vestments from Third Republic France. Note in particular the episcopal vesture at right. (Source)

In Peter Anson’s remarkable volume, Bishops at Large: Some Autocephalous Churches of the Past Hundred Years and their Founders (1964), we learn of many episcopi vagantes and their kindred spirits. It seems that several of these strange fellows dabbled (or more than dabbled) in the occult. Many also coupled that occultism with an interest in ancient heresies, which they sought to resurrect. In a chapter on the succession from René Vilatte, we stumble across a shocking little paragraph:

Mgr. Giraud and most of the priests and layfolk of the Gallican Church, even if not Gnostics themselves, were closely associated with them. Gnosticism was very much in the air fifty or sixty years ago. Even the Benedictine monks of Solesmes felt it worth their while to study what are known as the ‘Magic Vowels’ used in Gnostic rites and ceremonies. In 1901 they published a book entitled Le chant gnostico-magique. (Anson 309)

What an extraordinary claim. The monks of Solesmes, Dom Prosper Gueranger’s own sons, publishing studies of Gnostic chants! Dear readers, do any of you have any information on this bizarre note? I have been able to find evidence, however scanty, that the book Anson mentions was indeed published. But it surely must count as one of the rarest volumes in the assembled miscellanea of liturgical history. I would appreciate any leads whatsoever. Might some of my liturgically minded friends have any clue? Whatever comes of it, there is no doubt a very interesting story lurking behind this utterly unique publication.

Elsewhere: Fr. Hunwicke on Liturgical Wigs

image

The famous portrait of Bishop Challoner to which Fr. Hunwicke refers in his piece. (Source)

I haven’t written much this week, as I’ve been traveling. However, on this beautiful  St. Bernard’s Day, I thought I’d share this brief and wonderful gem of a piece by Fr. John Hunwicke of the Ordinariate.

An excerpt:

I’m sure there are zillions of you out there who have the following sort of information right at your snuff-stained finger tips: did prelates eo fere tempore wear their wigs all through Mass? Even after their zucchetto had been removed as they approached the Consecration? When did Catholic bishops stop wearing wigs? (I think it went out of fashion in Anglican cicles in the 1830s.)

He also gets into the question of blue episcopal choir dress, mainly used in France and Ireland. Read the whole thing.

Clerical dress is one of my longstanding interests, as is the history of 18th century Catholicism. I’m glad Fr. Hunwicke is using his formidable celebrity to draw attention to these matters. While some may dismiss clerical fashion (particularly that of the Ancien Régime) as a trivial matter, I beg to differ. Clerical dress both during and outside of the liturgy is one more aesthetic component by which we can present “the beauty of holiness.” The nondescript threads worn by so many clergy and religious today are, alas, one more surrender to the cult of stark utility, false equality, failed individuality, and, in the end, boring homogeneity.

At the moment, I don’t have the time or capacity to research the questions Fr. Hunwicke raises. But The Amish Catholic will follow this story with all due attention and gravity. You can count on that. In the meantime, I’ll feast my eyes on this doozy of a cappa magna.

On the Society of the Victims

Reparatrice et Cté au choeur

Reparation done well; before the Eucharist, in choir, among a monastic community, under the Rule of St. Benedict. Not in a largely-autonomous secret society. This Mectildian charism inspired that lower variant. (Source: Vultus Christi)

The Society of the Victims was a secret group founded by one Jacqueline-Aimée Brohon in late 18th century France. Their story is a strange one. Under Brohon’s leadership, they aspired to be a kind of Catholic Justice League, saving the world through Reparation. The goals and gender dynamics of the Society make it a potentially interesting example of how Catholic women led and took ownership of their own religious life before the advent of feminism. The Society’s theological grounding seems to depend not only upon the work of Mère Mectilde du Saint Sacrement (1614-1698), but possibly also on more esoteric sources such as the Kabbalah. If an historical theologian could find a complete edition of Brohon’s works in the original, there might be something useful there.

But in truth, we can also see serious problems with the Society, too. There is something cult-like in their self-conception, and some of their founder’s statements seem to draw very near to blasphemy. The few later scholars who paid any attention to Brohon did not hesitate to attribute her ideas to madness.

To my knowledge, there is only one source in English that tells the story of the mysterious Society. The following article is copied from pages 270-73 of the seminal 1817 text by Hannah Adams, A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. I have reproduced it here in the hope that it may be of use to those who study early modern religion, are versed in Benedictine spirituality, or otherwise take an interest in the spiritual legacy of Mother Mectilde de Bar. In transcribing the work, I have retained all quotes, capitals, spellings, and italics as close to the original as I could. This has resulted in certain evident anachronisms and irregularities, for which I beg the patience of my readers.

On a side note, Hannah Adams herself is worth looking intoa pioneer of comparative religion, a member of the Adams family of Boston, and the first American to work as a professional writer. One of the reasons I love studying religious history is coming across remarkable characters like her. Not to mention oddballs like Madame Brohon.

SOCIETY OF THE VICTIMS

On the 23rd of June, 1804, an imperial decree was issued for the suppression of those associations, known under the names of Fathers of the Faith, adorers of Jesus or Pacanaristes. This decree was provoked by a report of Portalis, minister of worship; a report extremely well written, printed, but not published. It has been translated into German, and therein speaks of a secret society of Victims, concerning which society the following account has been given by Gregoire, in his learned work, styled, “Histoire Des Sectes Religieuses.”

Catherine de Bar was born at Lorraine in 1619. She established, in the year 1657, at Rambervillers, a new religious order, for persons of her own sex, which spread rapidly in France. She adopted the rule of St. Benedict, but with some modifications, which she explained in a work, entitled, “The true spirit of the perpetual religious worshippers of the most holy sacrament of the altar.” The proper character of these nuns was that of being Victims, to expiate the sins committed against Jesus Christ in the celebration of the eucharist. Each day one of the Religious remains in her retreat from mattins until vespers. Her office is to be the expiatory Victim. When the sisters go to their dining room, the Victim is the last to leave the choir. She appears with a cord about her neck, and a torch in her hands. When they have all taken their places, she reminds them that they are all Victims, immolated for the sake of Jesus Christ: she then bows herself, returns to the choir during dinner, and remains there until after vespers, like a victim separated from the flock, destined for sacrifice.

Regnauld, a curate of Vaux, author of a work, entitled, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” makes mention of a work, entitled, “Les Galarics,” published in 1754, a species of mysticism in favour of convulsions. In the fourth galeric of Elias, the author asserts, “The victims are of the greatest importance. They are devoted for every crime, and each of them bears different parts in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This character will make them known to the Gentiles. The despair of the victims will expiate presumptuous confidence, as the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross has represented and expiated the sins into which mankind has fallen. They must bear to be culpable in the eyes of men, that they may complete what is wanting in the passion of our Saviour. They must bear the burdens of agner of God and men. They must be found amid the abodes of infamy, among robbers and murderers. Besides these public victims, there must be secret ones, delivered up to the horrible states of passion, despair, and distraction.”

Such probably were the ideas of the lady when on the eve of founding the order of the Victims. She had lived in Lorraine, where the houses of the Benedictines of the holy sacrament were numerous. She relates that at the age of nine years, having experienced in a sensible manner the protection of the blessed virgin, she consecrated herself to her service.

Madam Brohon, who was born at Paris, early devoted herself to the cultivation of letters. The Abbe la Porte, author of the “Literary History of French Women,” written in 1769, says, “It is now fifteen years since much mention was made fo the mind, the graces, and the talents of Madam Brohon, though she was then but eighteen years old.[“] He proceeds to give an analysis of a work of hers, entitled, “The Charms of Ingenuity.” It is a tale of about twenty eight pages. Bossy, the editor of the Mercury, has praised it.

Her life having been preserved, as she asserts, by a miracle of the blessed father Fourier, she determined to take the monastic vows. She repented having written romances, and consulted the Abbe Clement, who directed her for some time, and whose virtues she highly extolled.

The penitent devoted herself to retirement, for the space of fourteen years. At last she returned to Paris, and there died, the eighteenth of September, 1778, being upwards of forty years old.

From the time she quitted her literary career her active spirit exercised itself on ascetic subjects. Many of her works have been anonymously published by her admirers. Such as “Edifying Instructions on the fasting of Jesus Christ in the desert;” and, “The Manuel of the Victims of Jesus, or Extracts from the instructions which the Lord has given to his first victims.” This last work appeared in 1799, a volume in octavo of four hundred pages.

1774, writing to Beaumont, archbishop of Paris, she predicted that God was about to execute his judgments on the nations, to punish a tenth part of the earth, and to choose a new people; but first he would establish those victims, who would constantly immolate themselves to him. The Abbe de Garry would be their director. France, which had been the first christian kingdom, and which had distinguished itself by the purity of its faith, and its piety towards the holy virgin, would be the cradle of this new people, if its perversity did not deprive it of this benefit. If France rejected the Victims, God would take away its provinces; he would raise up a strange prince to devastate and enslave it. She pretended to foresee that the Spanish nation was to be the instrument of God’s vengeance. Great calamities would then fall upon the capital; the clergy, secular as well as regular, would be humbled; the sanctuaries would be abolished, in order to punish those who ought to have been their ornaments and glory. This was published in 1791.

In a letter to Lewis XV, then sick, Madam Brohon introduces the Almighty as a Mediator, and demands in his name Madam Victoire to be one of the victims. Sophia du Castelle, the daughter of a Notary de Peronne, a novitiate of the Benedictine de Gomer Fontaire, was also to be one of the victims. The number was fixed at twelve to represent the apostolic college with the same attributes. The college of Victims was composed of an equal number of men and women. The latter would have the honour of beginning the new mission; 1. as an effect of the love of Jesus Christ for his holy mother; 2. in order to reward the fidelity of the women to Jesus Christ in the course of his mortal life and passion; 3. in order to humble the masculine sex, who abuse their authority; and to provoke their jealousy when they see the zeal of feeble women. The male victims would be clothed with the sacerdotal garments. The women, however, would not be subordinate to them; they acknowledge no superiour but the bishops; but they would preserve a great respect for the body of pastors, united to the Pope, the head of the true church, who would receive an augmentation of power over faithful souls. Some auxiliaries would form a body for reserve out of which the successors of the Victims would be chosen.

The Victims, according to their own account, are predicted in the bible; without them an essential part of the Messiah would fail. They will be established near Jesus Christ, to fulfil the same functions for him that he has fulfilled for his Father. There are, say they, some faithful souls, who have grace enough to ensure their own salvation; but not enough to immolate themselves to divert the plague which menaces the human species. The Victims are consecrated to do it by taking upon themselves the general anathema. They are the centre and recipients of grace, the fountain from which it is distributed over the whole earth. They boasted of being advanced in glory above the monastic life, and having the same privileges as the angels, who would mourn if anything was wanting to complete their felicity. They asserted, that “they were very dear to the Saviour; that the precious blood which flowed from his side is the adorable ink with which their names are written;” and that “himself and the holy virgin have declared themselves the father and mother of the Victims, the promise of refusing them nothing.”

“The sacrifice of the mass will continue during the glorious reign of the Redeemer. Then there will be no monasteries. The Victims will be the vine and body of the church. Enoch and Elias will preside.”

The greatest crimes are committed between six o’clock in the evening and two in the morning; the Victims pass that time in prayer, and recite matins at midnight.

Each Victim has suspended to her neck a silver medal, on which is engraven the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary, to which they owe a perfect devotion.

Madam Brohon, being the first Victim, it will not be found surprising that she was adorned with extraordinary graces by Jesus, who was her common confessor. She declares, that he said to her one day, as he showed her the wounds on his side, “Seek me no more on the cross, I have yielded to thee my place, I shall no more be crucified, my Victims will be instead of me.”

In 1792, a consultation of many of the professors and doctors of the Sorbonne was printed on the following works: “Edifying Instructions” and “Edifying Reflections.” They reproached Madam Brohon, the author, with various impieties, and the most reprehensible ideas.*

*Gregoire’s Histoire Des Sectes Religieuses, vol. ii. p. 1, 2, 3, 4, &c.

Given the extreme scarcity of resources on the Society, we are beholden unto Gregoire-cum-Adams’s interpretation.

Nevertheless, there are problems with this account. Purely from a historiographical perspective, we should note that Gregoire is Adams’ only source. This introduces some measure of doubt. We have no way of assessing Gregoire’s biases, and no way of separating fact from interpretation.

Moreover, Adams leaves us without any explanation of what exactly the Sorbonne fathers found lacking in the then-deceased Brohon’s work. We could perhaps imagine some of the problems, based on what has already been told. But the sketch is so vague and so detached from the wider context of Brohon’s writings, French Society, and 18th century theology, that we really cannot infer the trouble with any degree of certainty. The condemnation certainly came during an inauspicious year, the same that saw the assault of the King at the Tuileries, the beginnings of unrest in the Vendée, the September Massacres, and the abolition of the monarchy. In fact, 1792 would later be known (for a short time) as Year One of the Revolutionary Calendar. Was the Sorbonne still reliable at that late date? How intriguing that Brohon’s prophecy of destruction and divine punishment for France should have been published only one year before the condemnation of her work came out, a full 13 years after her own death. It is entirely possible that her words were deployed in protest of the Revolution.

Sorbonne_17thc

The Sorbonne in the 17th century. (Source)

Neither Adams nor Gregoire make any such suggestion. Other than telling us about this censure and of the Society’s implication in the suppression of the Pacanaristes, we are left with no sense whatsoever of what the Society actually did, nor what became of it. Did the Victims meet together, or was their work carried out remotely? If they did congregate, were their acts based upon the rites of reparation established by Mother Mectilde? What kind of relationship, if any, did the Society maintain with Mectildean monasteries? Where were the Society’s main centers and circles? Who knew of them, and what was their broader reputation before the Sorbonne issued its decree? Did they exert any influence at all at court or in the Church of France, beyond the two letters to the Archbishop and the King?

Other sources shed a little more light.

Although he dismisses Brohon as a madwoman, Alfred Maury helpfully writes in the Revue des deux mondes (1854) that “Mlle. Brohon did not delay in exercising a veritable empire over distinguished men; with her hallucinations and her pretend prophecies, she occupied a mob of members of the clergy and of persons of high society” (Maury 474; translation is my own). With Adams, he details the letters to Beaumont and Louis XV, and adds that neither paid much attention at all to her demands. More recent scholars have turned their attention to Brohon. In their introduction to the 2011 study Victimes au féminin, Marc Kolakowski and Francesca Prescendi suggest that Brohon’s use of the word “victim” animated connotations of separation and sacrifice reaching all the way back to Roman antiquity (Kolakowski and Prescendi 31-32). This feature is perhaps unsurprising for late 18th century France, which was infused with a mania for all things Roman—culminating in the outburst of violent Republicanism that began on July 14, 1789.

Of course, there is another question that rises like a plume of smoke over all of these sources. No writer definitively confirms that the Society ever really existed. All we can glean is the plan of the alleged Foundress—her spirituality, her intentions for the group, the popularity we think she might have enjoyed in certain quarters, and the names of the other Victims she wanted to join the Society. But nowhere do we find any proof that the privileged circle of the Elect ever extended beyond her.

And thus we are left with one of the innumerable, tangled mysteries of religious history, one that draws together the spirituality of a 17th century Benedictine, the sacred delusions of an 18th century aristocrat, and the fires of the French Revolution.

The Vampirologist: Dom Augustin Calmet OSB

DomAugustinCalmet.jpg

Vera Effigies Augustini Calmet Abbatis Senonensis. (Source).

I was recently asked by the administrator of Catholics from the Crypt to write a brief introduction to Dom Augustin Calmet, Abbot-General of the Congregation of St. Vanne. My qualifications for this task are minimal but, I think, sufficient. First, I know a little about Calmet, which is, sadly, more than many can say. He is an unfairly overlooked figure in our religious and cultural landscape. Secondly, I hope to write my Master’s Thesis on Calmet’s Histoire Universelle, though of course the actual process of research might change my direction. For the time being, I am glad of the challenge, and will likely turn this into the first of a series of short biographies of weird religious figures.

Dom Calmet, born on the 26th of February, 1672, in the then-Duchy of Bar (now Lorraine, France) had a long and impressive career. Entering religious life at the Benedictine Priory of Breuil, he moved around over the years to obtain his education at various abbeys. His itinerary reads like an honor roll of some of the finest establishments of the Franco-German monastic intelligentsia: St. Mansuy, St. Èvre, Munster, Mouyenmoutier, Lay-Saint-Christophe, St. Leopold. Yet the two monasteries most closely associated with his career are Senones Saint-Pierre and Vosges, where he eventually died a holy death.

He achieved widespread scholarly respect for his work in three different fields. First, Calmet distinguished himself as an Exegete. His Biblical method differed from more classical forms of exegesis by focusing entirely on the literal meaning of the text; this exposed him to criticism, even amidst the general acclaim which the book and its abridgements garnered.

DomCalmetTitlePageVampires

Title page of Book I of his most famous work on Vampires. (Source).

Second, he became an eminent author of sacred and profane history. While my own interest lies most heavily with his Histoire Universelle (1735-47), Calmet also devoted considerable attention to more specific topics. It should come as no surprise, given the libraries to which he had access, that he devoted special care to the region which bore him. His titles include History of the Famous Men of Lorraine (1750), Dissertation on the Highways of Lorraine (1727), Genealogical History of the House of Châtelet (1741), and posthumous histories of both Senones (1877-81) and Munster (1882).

However, Calmet achieved lasting fame for his extremely popular work on Vampires: first, Dissertations on the Apparitions of Angels, Demons, and Spirits, and on the Revenants and Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia (1746) He later expanded the text into his famous Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on the Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, of Moravia, &c. in 1752. These texts were, to the best of my knowledge, the first attempt to apply scientific rigor to the tales of the undead then current throughout Europe.

The books were a huge hit, and remain widely respected by occult writers today. To quote one source:

Re-released in 1748, with the most complete edition in 1751, this book is considered to be [the] authoritative treatment on the subject, containing an unprecedented collection of ghostly stories of revenants. It was a best seller for the period, quickly translated into German and Italian for a broader audience. Calmet’s tone considers the possibility of vampires with a certain ambiguity, possibly in light of the larger body of his publications for the church. Still, this is widely regarded as the starting point of all vampiric literature.

 

The work garnered critical attention from no less a figure than Voltaire. As that eminent source, Wikipedia, relates, Voltaire wrote of Calmet with no small astonishment:

What! It is in our 18th century that there have been vampires! It is after the reign of Locke, of Shaftesbury, of Trenchard, of Collins; it is under the reign of d’Alembert, of Diderot, of Saint-Lambert, of Duclos that one has believed in vampires, and that the Reverend Priest Dom Augustin Calmet, priest, Benedictine of the Congregation of Saint-Vannes and Saint-Hydulphe, abbot of Senones, an abbey of a hundred thousand livres of rent, neighbor of two other abbeys of the same revenue, has printed and re-printed the History of Vampires, with the approbation of the Sorbonne, signed by Marcilli!

[NB: translation is my own]

We can only imagine what conversation transpired between the two thinkers when Voltaire stayed at Senones in 1754, only a few years before the abbot’s death.

It is perhaps unusual that a monk who was, by all accounts, part of the same intellectual circles as the Maurist Enlighteners and the Philosophes would take to such a strange subject. Calmet certainly saw himself as partaking of that wider project. He writes in his preface to the Treatise,

My goal is not at all to foment superstition, nor to maintain the vain curiosity of Visionaries, and of those who believe without examination all that one tells them, as soon as they find therein the marvelous and the supernatural. I do not write but for those reasonable and unprejudiced spirits, who examine things seriously and with sang-froid; I do not speak but for those who do not give their consent to known truths but with maturity, who know to doubt things uncertain, to suspend their judgment in things doubtful, and to refute that which is manifestly false. (Calmet ii).

[NB: translation is my own]

Perhaps we should not be so surprised. After all, the religious history of Europe is peppered with eccentric and erudite men drawn to esoteric studies. And by the time that Dom Calmet died in 1757, the French monastics had not yet reached the height of their oddity. That would come later, with the well-traveled and thoroughly bizarre Swedenborgian and Martinist monk Antoine-Joseph Pernety, whom I hope to someday investigate more thoroughly.

The Revolution changed all that. No longer could monks live their lives freely, let alone attempt serious academic inquiry. It would take the genius of men like Dom Prosper Guéranger to restore the French Benedictines to their former glory.

800px-Senones_88_Saint-Gondelbert.jpg

Senones Abbey today. The monastery was dissolved by Revolutionary forces in 1793, then later sold off as State Property and converted into a textile mill. This desecration continued until 1993, when what was left of the abbey became a Monument historique. (Source).

The Orange Pope

Yesterday was the 327th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, when the forces of Protestant Britain defeated the Catholic Irishmen fighting for James II, rightful king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It is a black day for many Catholics, in no small part because many of them descend from Irish communities that remember the oppression that followed under the penal laws. In Northern Ireland today, July 12th remains a divisive date marked by sectarian tensions and the triumphalist pageantry of the native Scotch-Irish Protestants. One wonders whether the new Conservative-DUP alliance in the Commons will have had any affect on the infamous marches of the Orange Order, founded in remembrance of today’s events.As cursed as the memory of the Boyne remains for Catholics today, it’s worth remembering that things were a bit more complex in the 17th century. I enjoy a good bit of Jacobite nostalgia as much as the next trad, but I also think a more honest assessment of history is worth exploring. Human life is a complicated thing, and the strange story of the Williamite War is riddled with contradictions.

Tremendous irony lies at the heart of the Boyne and what it represents. William of Orange, the stalwart champion of Protestantism, overthrew the Catholic James while secretly in league with Pope Innocent XI.

InnocentXI

His Holiness, Innocent XI P.M. (Source).

Innocent’s political priorities centered on maintaining the balance of power in Europe. In 1690, that meant checking the bellicose Louis XIV. Ever since the marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, the British Crown had been in an ever-closer relationship with France. James II was Louis’s only real ally, and Innocent knew it. The Pope also seems to have considered James a bit dull. He is known to have found his methods in the re-conversion of England more than a little imprudent (it was, in short, a massive failure of triangulation between the vitriolically anti-Catholic Whigs and the pro-Establishment Tories. James was not shrewd enough to manage the two, and ended up pleasing no one).

There was another threat on the table. The future of Catholic France was at stake. Louis XIV had, on the one hand, made moves designed to give him the appearance of Catholic zeal. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, though not approved by the Pope, is perhaps the greatest example. More troublingly, Louis had rammed through the Four Articles that so antagonized the Papacy by more or less establishing Gallicanism throughout the land. Innocent fought against these measures.

Things came to a boiling point when the Pope, in league with almost all the crowned heads of Europe, clashed with Louis over who would fill the see of Cologne. When the election proved inconclusive, Innocent decided in favor of his own candidate. To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Louis XIV retaliated by taking possession of the papal territory of Avignon, imprisoning the papal nuncio and appealing to a general council. Nor did he conceal his intention to separate the French Church entirely from Rome. The Pope remained firm.”

Enter the Dutch.

image.png
Willem III, Prince of Orange, King of England and Stadtholder, by Godfried Schalcken. c. 1692-97. (Source)

It is unclear to what extent Innocent might have aided William of Orange. An old legend current at the time asserts that the Pope had financed the expedition with a secret loan of 150,000 scudi. As one reporter puts it, “The sum, equivalent to more than £3.5 million today, equalled the Vatican’s annual budget deficit.” There is, it seems, some truth to this statement. The legend has been supported by more recent research, such as that conducted by the fiction authors Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. They uncovered evidence that corroborated the longstanding claims of other historians.

Which leads us to a singular painting by Pieter van der Meulen, The Entry of King William Into Ireland. It has played a controversial role in Northern Irish history. Purchased by the Unionist government of Ulster in 1933, it originally hung in the Great Hall of Stormont. After shifting locations several times, eventually the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley (of all people) hung it in his office. It is presumably the only picture of the Pope in glory that Dr. Paisley ever liked.

(c) Northern Ireland Assembly; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Entry of King William Into Ireland, Pieter van der Meulen. (c) Northern Ireland Assembly; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. (Source).

So, why would a Pope act against a Catholic monarcheven covertly?

It seems that he sold Britain and Ireland to save France…and by extension, continental Catholicism. It was a gamble, and a costly one at that. But it seems to have worked in the short run. Although France would later see a terrible anti-Catholic upheaval of its own, Louis was forced to abandon his immediate moves towards schism. He did not become a French Henry VIII. Among all the terrible things that followed the Boyne, at least that one very important good came of it.